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Gary Younge
Gay Americans go north to take the plunge

Almost exactly 23 years after they met, Walter, 44, and Greg, 52, were getting married. And like many same sex couples across America they had to go north to do it. "It's not going to mean anything in the US but it will mean something to us,"Walter said. "It means we're not different."

Given the rancorous battle over gay rights that has recently surged to the fore in American politics, it was partly a gesture of defiance. "It's like a symbol to say fuck you America," said Greg. "We're supposed to be this superpower and we can't even look after our own people."

For the most part they were getting married for the same reason as most people, only far later in their relationship because of the legalities. "We're like an old married couple,"said Walter. "It's just the two of us and our cat. We work hard, come home and fall asleep in front of the TV."

When they told their friends, gay or straight, about their intentions they just said: "It's about time."

Since June, when the US supreme court struck down Texas's anti-sodomy law, which criminalised sexual practices between same-sex couples, activists in America have been gaining confidence in their ability to mount a legal challenge that would open up marriage to gay couples. The supreme court of Massachusetts is pondering the issue and is expected to pass its judgment very soon.

In the meantime, a number of alternatives have sprung up in America to avoid the "m" word. Since 2000, Vermont has been the only state that recognises civil unions giving same-sex couples legal protections and rights in state law. But many cities and companies recognise same sex partnerships, which make partners eligible for health insurance and other employment benefits.

Public opinion has also become less censorious. In 1991 71% said gay sex was always wrong, compared with 53% last year, according to the General Social Survey, a leading cultural barometer.

But Greg and Walter were not interested in half-measures. "[Civil unions and domestic partnerships] don't give you anything," said Walter. In essence the reason they praise Canada for extending the right to marry is the very reason others in America want to deny them such a possibility. "Finally a government is legitimising us and saying yes, they're a couple and yes they're OK," Walter added.

Such legitimisation does not look likely in the United States in the near future. American tolerance of gay lifestyles stops at the altar. The heterosexual institution may be shaky, but when it comes to denying marriage to lesbians and gay men, attitudes remain firm.

Break for the border

Thirty-seven states already have what are called defence of marriage acts, stating that marriage is between one man and one woman.

"I've been writing for a long time about how tolerant Americans are, and how the culture has changed, yet gay marriage is the line," Alan Wolfe, a Boston college professor of political science, told the New York Times. "Marriage is the one institution that touches on everything that Americans really care deeply about."

Gay couples are not the first section of society in America to break for the Canadian border to secure rights they could not enjoy at home. Just as America has continued to be a magnet for economic migrants from all over the world, so its northern neighbour has attracted political migrants from the States.

Claims that the latest migration illustrates Canada's inherent liberalism are true only to a point. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, ratified same-sex marriages in June, and the federal government has drafted legislation to legalise the practice across the country and has asked the supreme court to review the proposed law. But the bill's passage is by no means certain and the issue would be likely to figure prominently in a federal election if it were called next year.

"My sense is that we're on a collision course with the electorate on this issue. This thing is really heating up, folks. I've never seen an issue like this," Liberal MP Dan McTeague said.

Meanwhile, however, a steady flow of gay and lesbian Americans are descending on border towns such as Niagara Falls to take advantage of the new law. At the city hall they are performing about one gay wedding every two days since the law changed, and according to the city clerk, Dean Iorfida, 90% of couples are American.

Unitarian lay chaplain Doreen Peever, in nearby St Catharines, has married couples from as far afield as Florida, Texas, California and South Carolina on her front porch. The day before she met Greg and Walter she had a phone call from an American in Vietnam asking whether she would marry him and his Vietnamese partner, and later she had a lesbian couple coming in from Michigan.

After their journey and a big breakfast Greg and Walter arrived at Niagara Falls city hall with their two best men, Chris and Craig, to register.

The change in the law has prompted a shift in expectations at the clerk's office. "Before you assume it's going to be a man and a woman getting married," Mr Iorfida said. "So if a man came in with his dad or his friend you'd think they were coming in for something else. Now you don't really know for sure."

The next day the couple went to Ms Peever's home for the ceremony. Both men wore ties and Ms Peever's cat miaowed as she read them their vows. They held hands as she told them that marriage was "an honourable state" and "by the power invested in [her]" she declared them husband and husband.

They headed back to their hotel, knowing that by the time they boarded the plane in Buffalo a couple of days later the official imprimatur on their relationship would have already faded.

"If someone asks me if I'm married I don't know what I'll say," Walter said. "I suppose I'll tell them I am in Canada but not at home."

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